The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

Donal Ryan burst onto the Irish literary scene last year helped in no small part by his novel The Spinning Heart being nominated for the 2013 Booker prize. The Spinning Heart paints a picture of post boom time Ireland and features some of the most bewitching prose I’ve come across in a while.

The backbone of the story centres on the fall of local hero Bobby Mahon. Bobby is a former football star who worked as a building site foreman during the times of economic prosperity. Despite being adored by his fellow towns people Bobby is a self-effacing, hardworking man who does not like too much of a fuss being made about him.

Things begin to unravel for Bobby when his boss, the quintessential Irish boom time property developer, ‘Pokey Burke’ skips town to avoid paying debts.  Pokey leaves a half-finished housing development or “ghost estate” and a crew of disgruntled builders in his wake.

On top of all this Bobby also has to shoulder the burden of his spiteful father, an undying man who seems to be sustained by hate. His father, jealous of Bobby’s relationship with his now deceased mother, was a man who; “sat silently swallowing her claim to a life…drunk he was leering and silent and mostly asleep. Sober, he was watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything. Nothing was ever done right or cooked right or said right or bought right or handed to him properly or ironed straight or finished off fully with him. We couldn’t breathe right in a room with him.

Matters go from bad to worse when it transpires that the greasy Mr.Burke has neglected to pay social security on behalf of his employees meaning they are not entitled to redundancy payments or unemployment assistance. Bobby, decent man that he is, feels responsible for this situation despite being unaware of Burke’s machinations.

Amid the aftermath of Pokey’s flight a murder happens in which Bobby is implicated and the consequences reverberate throughout the town. The story is related to us from the vantage point of the various townspeople, twenty-one in total, their fragments revealing the broader story to the reader.

Ryan successfully finds distinctive voices for each member of his literary symphony, each possessing their own idiosyncrasies, and back stories which could stand alone as short stories. The only shortcoming in the novel lies in one of these characters narrative trajectories which features an ill-conceived child kidnap sub plot which fails to convince.

This lapse is forgivable in light of Ryan’s prose and highly memorable turn of phrase. The local gossips are referred to as “The Teapot Taliban,” whose aged veins run with “pill thinned blood”. I will restrain myself from quoting any more as once one begins quoting a writer of Ryan’s quality it’s hard to know when to stop.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of literary fiction or an interest in seeing a snapshot of modern rural Ireland. The Spinning Heart was one of the most enjoyable pieces of fiction I read in 2013.I hope to have a review of Ryan’s second published novel The Thing About December posted by early next week.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

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ISBN:978-1-4722-0032-7

ISBN:978-1-4722-0032-7

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is the title of British fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman’s latest novel. It tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who revisits his childhood hometown while on his way to a wedding. On arriving there he pays a visit to the home of the Hempstocks, a neighbouring family who live on an isolated farm.

The Hempstock family are comprised of three feisty, independent minded women who represent three generations of the family. If you are familiar with fantasy/mythological tropes or know your Macbeth, I needn’t tell you the significance of a triumvirate of females who live outside society…

While visiting the Hempstock house as his adult self the protagonist takes a while to sit by a pond, the “ocean” of the title. Here long forgotten/ magically repressed memories of a childhood adventure come flooding back allowing him to revisit them from his present day adult perspective.

The narrator recounts an incident from his past involving the suicide of a lodger, who stole the protagonist’s father’s car in order to commit the dark deed. This act triggered a sinister supernatural shift which altered the benign world of the narrator’s childhood into something altogether more unsettling. Help comes in the form of Lettie Hempstock, the youngest, in appearance at least, of the Hempstock women.

Lettie helps the narrator battle a supernatural entity that has been causing chaos, by granting wishes in an over literal manner, tending to the baser more materialistic side of human nature. The narrator and Lettie defeat the malign entity, or so it seems. Alas the narrator commits the classic mythological error of not following instruction given to him by the magic literate Lettie down to the tiniest detail.

Gaiman is writer who has a compendious knowledge of global mythology and incorporates these tropes into all his work. Magic as presented in fairy tales and myths is mercilessly legalistic and is defined and regulated by tightly bound ritual contracts. By having his protagonist deviate from the instructions given to him by Lettie, Gaiman pays his mythological dues, and signals to us the reader that there will be consequences.

These consequences come in the form of a sinister new house keeper Ursula Monkton. Ursula insinuates herself into the heart of the narrators family by seducing those around her. To the narrator’s mother she is a young woman with impeccable qualifications for minding children, to his sister a glamorous role model, and to his father an object of sexual desire.

Only the narrator is immune to her charms, as his adult self recounts, “She smiled at us both, brightly. She really was pretty, for a grown up, but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative. I wonder what I would have done if she had smiled at me like that now: whether I would have handed my mind or my heart or my identity to her for the asking, as my father did.

The narrator’s immediate suspicion of Ursula Monkton soon puts him at odds with the rest of his family. With no one else to rely on he must seek out the Hempstocks for assistance, but this is more easily said than done when you are seven years old and grounded.

The Ocean At The Lane is a fun but rather slight read which is not without its flaws, the primary one being missed opportunity. By using the device of having an adult recount his childhood adventure from the perspective of middle age, Gaiman creates a potentially fascinating way of exploring the disparities between our adult and childhood selves.

Instead of being used to explore the rich psychological seam it promises, this device is used in a rather mechanical way to propel the narrative which doesn’t do justice to the premise of the novel. His narrator credulously recounts his fantastical childhood adventures without once doubting the veracity of these memories.

My other problem with the novel is a recurring one I have with Gaiman’s work, his characters seldom become more than archetypes. Perhaps this is due to the influence of myth on the authors writing where archetypes are the norm and stories are told in broad strokes in order to convey ideas rather than nuance, sadly it doesn’t work well in the novel format. The main character is an empty vessel who reacts to the exigencies of plot in a rather clockwork way.

The supporting characters, with the exception of the Hempstock women, are paper-thin, the mother in particular being an absent cypher. Her existence barely extends beyond the letters used to spell the word ‘mother’ on the page. The Hempstock women are a portrayed with a little more success. Their characters are more rounded and their interaction feels genuine.

The depiction of the Hempstock women is interesting as it reveals a certain laziness on behalf of the author. One gets the feeling that the author was more invested in thesecharacters, their magical nature making them more entertaining to write. The evidence suggests that Gaiman can write characters with a bit more depth, but only when they are of particular interest to him.

All in all, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a novel which doesn’t live up to its promise. A tangible element of auto pilot has entered Gaiman’s work and one feels a change in genre might be in order. It is hard not to feel that Gaiman’s writing has suffered since he moved away from comic books to the novel form, a feeling which is confirmed by rereading his majestic Sandman series published by Vertigo comics.

The Ocean At End Of The Lane is by no means terrible it is also not particularly memorable.  This novel will keep Gaiman’s fans happy but is hardly likely to win over the unconverted. Regardless there is a large audience for this kind of thing in our post Harry Potter cultural landscape and the book will no doubt be a smash hit. Expect an inevitable movie version.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

ISBN: 978-1-908276-02-5

Swimming Home is the title of the Booker prize shortlisted novel by playwright and author Deborah Levy. The book opens with a rather heavy handed introduction by Tom Mc Carthy which advises us on how the novel should be interpreted. This unacceptable act of literary tyranny is further compounded by Mc Carthy, who seeks to reassure potential readers with a resume of Levy’s literary influences, which includes Lacan, Barthes, Deleuze, Duras,Stein, Ballard, Kafka and Robbe-Grillet.

It is a pity that Mc Carthy does not seem to have shared Levy’s reading choices. If he had he would have encountered Barthes 1967 essay, the The Death of the Author,which argues against exactly the type of literary analysis which his introduction subjects Levy to.

Mc Carthy’s introduction does a further injustice to the novel when he states; “If the setting and plot of Swimming Home are borrowed, almost ironically, from the staid English-middle-class-on-holiday novel, all similarities end there.” In fact all similarities do not end there. The book is undeniably what Mc Carthy claims it isn’t, despite his snottiness and half-assed claims of irony. This in itself need not be a bad thing if the writing is up to scratch, which is a decision the reader, not Tom Mc Carthy, must make. While I feel introductions may serve a purpose when contextualising historically important novels and their effects, for example D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and its attendant obscenity trial, doing so with a newly released novel is both boorish and presumptuous.

If you skip past the introduction you will find a novel featuring impeccable prose, which is perfectly acceptable if not a little predictable. The story involves Joseph and Isabel Jacobs who are holidaying in a villa located in the south of France, along with their teenage daughter Nina, and their friends Mitchell and Laura. All present are members of the upper middle class. Joseph is that most elusive of beings, a rich poet and his wife Isabel, is a hard bitten,( is there any other kind?), international correspondent. Laura and Mitchell run a faltering antiques store which specialises in primitive weapons. One day over the course of their holiday the group of friends arrive home to find a beautiful young woman, who introduces herself as Kitty Finch, naked in their swimming pool. Stranger still the young woman is invited to stay by Isabel, a surprising move given her husband’s predilection for infidelity. Could she be plotting an end to her dissatisfactory marriage?

As Kitty settles amongst the holiday makers it becomes more and more apparent that she is a cuckoo in the nest. Obsessed by the poetry of Joseph, which she believes to be a mode of exclusive communication between them both, her goal is to have him read her poetry. Over the course of the novel it transpires that Kitty suffers from mental illness, the nature of the illness, as is often the case in literature, is never really defined. Whenever the mental illness occurs in the novel it manifests in a glamorous and cinematic way, as it tends to in stories involving Botticellian pale skinned, flame haired female poets.

The only other character to suffer from mental illness in the novel is Joseph, who you will remember is also a poet. This naïve perfume advertisement approach to mental illness detracts significantly from a novel which seems determined to take itself so seriously. Further flaws lie in the use of clichéd supporting characters, a randy French waiter, and a nature loving, German, dreadlocked stoner amongst them. Even the novels strengths are not without their downsides. An atmosphere of impending doom is successfully evoked but when said doom arrives it is unconvincing.

Where Swimming Home succeeds is in its portrayal of female characters excluding Kitty. Isabel, Nina and Laura are nuanced and complex creations. Of particular note is the depiction of the friendship between Isabel and Laura. When reading these passages it struck me how little genuine adult female friendship appears in literature without being simplified or over sentimentalised. While refreshing, this portrayal of adult female is not enough to carry an entire novel. I would hesitate to recommend Swimming Home to anyone but the most hardened Levy fan.

The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

ISBN: 978 1 4088 1603 5
The Song Of Achilles is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. The novel covers the familiar ground of Achilles semi-divine origins, his friendship with Patroclus, his training with Chiron, and his role in the eventual siege of Troy. Those who are familiar with the myth may question the point of its retelling.

The answer may be found in the nature of myth. Originating in an era where literacy was a minority pursuit, oral retellings of a tale by story tellers were common place. While we may associate these tales with surviving versions which are familiar to us, such as the version which appears in Homer’s Iliad, these tales were broadly told by multiple tellers.

As such multiple versions of popular myths existed simultaneously, definitive versions being a later product of history. Mythical stories tend to feature archetypical characters and scenarios which provided a scaffold for story tellers to weave their craft around. This accounts for the durable structure of myth which can incorporate multiple minor alterations to its tapestry without losing the core of the story.

So how has Miller fared in retelling a tale told previously by giants such as Homer and Plato? Quite well I’m pleased to report. Instead of taking on these masters in their home territory, the epic, Miller has moved arenas to the very modern realm of the personal and individual. Characters found in preserved versions of the Achilles myth are presented in a more nuanced form derived from realist tradition with added contemporary concerns such as individual psychology and personal motivation not present in ancient versions.

This is particularly evident in the portrayal of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. In earlier versions of the myth we are assured of these men’s friendship and take it as a given without been told much about the reasons behind it. This has left the nature of their relationship open for interpretation according to the tastes and needs of the storyteller. Miller has chosen to portray it primarily as a romance and skilfully depicts the maturation of their relationship as it develops from childhood companions to adult lovers, which fully accounts for their devotion to each other.

Despite Achilles’ starring role in the title the tale is told from the perspective of Patroclus which helps to accentuate the human rather than divine aspects of the tale. We observe the deeds of the demi-god Achilles from a very specific human perspective. This alters the dynamic of the tale radically, instead of being passive observers of a hero and his deeds we feel concern about for Achilles’ wellbeing and fret for his safety along with Patroclus. I felt that for the author humanity is the real star of the show, its complexity and contradictions being of more interest to her than the two dimensional traits of godhood. There is evidence for this in the novels focus on Patroclus, and the fact that most of Achilles divine deeds and interactions take place off page whereas his more human moments are what drive the narrative.

The author’s realistic treatment extends to the more fantastical characters also. Chiron the centaur, instructor of Achilles and Patroclus, came alive for me in a way I haven’t often experienced with fantastical characters. The fact that he was a human torso attached to a horse seemed the most natural thing in the world. This rendering of the fantastic as natural had such an effect on me that when Scamander, a river god, suddenly emerged to block Achilles approach of Troy it seemed like an ordinary and logical thing to happen.

The only character to retain some of the remoteness of godhood is Achilles’ imposing mother, the sea nymph Thetis. Thetis enters and leaves the story as she pleases exuding a terrifying inhuman presence as she does so. Yet ultimately her concerns are for her son’s future, maternal instincts being common to both mortals and goddesses. Thetis is horrified at her sons coupling with Patroclus, feeling a mortal unworthy of her demi-god son she shows that status anxiety is not an exclusively human trait.

Humour features throughout the book as well. Two moments in particular stood out for me as particularly amusing, the first being Chiron’s sceptical appraisal of a lavish jacket designed for a horse and the second a comment made by Odysseus to Pyrrhus about historical memory and posterity. The humour serves the novel well and helps lighten the mood in a story concerned with conflict and fate.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was surprised by my reaction to it. I had initially approached it with some scepticism given that I knew the broad outline of the plot already and expected to this to temper my enjoyment of the novel. Yet despite initial hesitation I found the book impossible to put down and nothing less than compelling. So whether you are a seasoned scholar of ancient Greek myth, a greenhorn looking for a way into these stories, or just somebody looking for a decent read, pick up The Song Of Achilles, you won’t regret it.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

ISBN: 9780316126694

The Art of Fielding tells the story of baseball savant Henry Skrimshander and the people he encounters when attending Westish Liberal Arts College in Wisconsin on a sports scholarship. Skrimshander’s initial contact with the college begins when he is spotted playing by Westish college baseball captain Mike Schwartz. Schwartz looks past Skrimshander’s diminutive size and notices his aptitude for baseball while watching him play for his small town baseball team the Legion.

Reasoning that such a talented player could turn around the fortunes of the beleaguered Harpooners whom he captains, Schwarz recruits the 17 year old Skrimshander. Soon the Harpooners fortunes are reversed thanks in no small way to Henry. Alas Henry’s record breaking streak comes undone when he injures a teammate with a misplaced throw. Suddenly the weight of other people’s expectations becomes too much to bear and Henry falls victim to ‘Steve Blass’ syndrome. Steve Blass syndrome for those of us who are not baseball aficionados refers to talented baseball players who suddenly and inexplicably lose their ability to throw. It is named after an unfortunate Pittsburgh Pirates player who suffered this frustrating fate after the 1972 season.

Here I must confess to my complete disinterest in and aversion to sport in general. Despite being entirely ignorant of baseball, Henrys paralysis and its implications for himself and those around him fascinated me. It is a credit to Harbach’s skill as a writer that I empathised with Henrys struggle. Harbach successfully conveys what it is to be a sportsperson standing alone in front of an expectant crowd treading the fine line between hero and pariah status.  His descriptions of baseball being played held my attention and have roused my interest in possibly watching baseball at some stage in the future, a feat matched only by Don De Lillo’s Underworld. The baseball element is a large part of the book but the Art of Fielding is not exclusively a sports novel. Henry’s scholarship to a liberal arts college provides elements of the campus novel.

As we can expect from this genre much focus is placed on the interactions which happen over the course of college life. The main characters who we are introduced to are college president Guert Affenlight, his daughter Pella, grizzled self-made college big man Mike Schwartz and placid young Bodhisatva Owen Dunne. As an undergrad Affenlight was responsible for uncovering a visit to the college by Herman Melville who visited while on a lecturing tour. Capitalising on this tenuous connection with Melville, Westish College erected a statue to the great writer and renamed its baseball team the Harpooners in honour of him. Affenlight has spent many years lecturing in Harvard after publishing a successful book on themes in Melville’s Moby Dick and has returned as president of his beloved alma mater. Affenlight seems to have found a sort of peace and stability in his role as president which is short lived due to the return of his daughter Pella who has abandoned her life in San Francisco and returned to the family home. Further to this Affenlight is falling in love with someone you shouldn’t fall in love with, at least not while serving as a college president.

The object of Affenlights affections is Henry’s roommate Owen Dunne, a charming young man who is homosexual and of mixed descent,a liberal’s wet dream. Owen has thoroughly enchanted college president,father, and former ladies’ man Guert Affenlight, who late in life finds himself to be a fan of Thomas Mann as well as Melville. And no wonder. Dunne is not only a student of excellent character and academic ability but is also a competent baseball player. Furthermore he manages both these feats while also being a habitual marijuana user.

This seemed so unlikely to me I began to wonder if perhaps Harbach was taking a tentative foray into magical realism. The same can be said of the implausible working class, noble savage and self-made college big man Mike Schwartz. I found the characters of Owen and Mike Schwartz a little problematic in terms of believability which is a negative for a novel which grounds itself in realism. Both characters feel like white liberal American fantasies and the author gets a little drunk on what he evidently feels to be their exoticism.

This is especially apparent in a novel which consistently references Melville, an author who was able to represent characters from other cultures as complex and fully fleshed out individuals. This could have proved fatal for the book were it not for its strengths which offset calamity.

What first stood out to me about the Art of Fielding was its refreshing straight forwardness and lack of cynicism. Harbach explores the nuances of human relationships and the nature of friendship and his conclusions are surprisingly unjaundiced. He is capable of expressing the complexities and compromises of friendship without denigrating the concept itself. The structure of the novel is similarly straight forward to the point of seeming old fashioned in its solidity and willingness to tell us a story.  I found this combination to be very charming and in the end I was seduced by its simplicity and overall warm tone. The Art of Fielding is a fine example of a good story well told. While not achieving the heights of Melville’s ‘Great American Novel’ Moby Dick, Harbach has commendably written a very good American novel.